Damon Albarn is one of the worldliest musicians you are ever likely to come across. With a CV that stretches back 25 years, perhaps the most impressive aspect is that each new project he gets involved in is completely different from everything he’s done in the past. Just look at it: britpop with Blur, alternative hip-hop with Gorillaz, alternative rock/folk with The Good, the Bad & the Queen, the funk supergroup Rocket Juice & the Moon with Tony Allen and Flea, and Chinese and British operas with accompanying soundtracks. And that’s not even counting the numerous side projects he’s contributed to. Yet for all the endlessly diverse music Albarn has provided us over the last two and a half decades, he’s never been particularly personal in his lyrics, often hiding behind witty satirical statements on society, collaborations or general topics.
Albarn’s long-awaited debut solo album, Everyday Robots, changes that – somewhat – as we finally get some insight into what makes him tick on this often-melancholy, always-beautiful effort. What you’ll notice straightaway is that this is a “headphones album” – meaning, it requires multiple listens to really dig in and discover all the little intricacies sprinkled throughout. And if you have the patience, you will be rewarded.
The first three songs set the tone for what’s to come as the title track opens with wistful-sounding strings and the words “We are everyday robots on our phones/looking like standing stones,” lamenting the inability to love and show emotion in a world saturated by technology – aka, modern life is rubbish. The second track “Hostiles” is a real highlight, a beautifully haunting tune with a constant understated beat in the background and lovely flickering piano keys in the chorus. “Lonely Press Play” is absolutely dripping with soul, also driven by a light reggae-like beat that calls to mind Albarn’s past African music collaborations. Also featuring one of the most memorable lines on the album (“Cause you’re not resolved in your heart/you’re waiting for me to improve”), this song embodies its title both musically and lyrically.
Much of Everyday Robots continues in a similar fashion, but there are two notable standouts from the pack. “Mr. Tembo” is a peppy ukulele-driven jam inspired by a baby elephant Albarn met in Tanzania (seriously) and features the Leytonstone City Mission Choir. It’s a guaranteed foot-tapper and provides a nice contrast to the rest of the album. The other song in this category is the clap-along, sing-it-around-a-campfire closer “Heavy Seas of Love”. With legendary producer Brian Eno sharing vocal duties with Albarn, it ends the album on a rather comforting and hopeful note with the lines, “When the world is too tall/you can jump, you won’t fall/you’re in safe hands.” Like “Mr. Tembo”, it contrasts the rest of the album and is a perfect choice as the closer.
Despite all of this, it is the middle crux of the album that shines brightest, namely with “The Selfish Giant” and the gorgeous seven-minute centerpiece “You & Me”. “The Selfish Giant” is a yearning, piano-driven song that features Natasha Khan (Bat For Lashes) on backing vocals. The memorable chorus finds Albarn again lamenting technology’s negative effects on relationships: “I had a dream you were leaving/it’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on/and nothing is in your eyes.” With another catchy beat flowing all the way and little electronic effects scattered throughout, it makes for one of the album’s strongest tracks. “You & Me” is basically three parts combined into one song. The first few minutes place the spotlight firmly on Albarn’s vocals (with Eno again in the background) with lightly strummed guitar and piano notes accompanying him. Midway through, the piano threatens to spiral out of control before settling back down and suddenly transitioning into an R&B-esque beat, Albarn’s vocal style also shifting to match the new style. On paper it should be a hot mess, but it all meshes perfectly to make the song a true epic.
We also get glimpses into Albarn’s past, including the infamous UK heat wave of 1976, a reference to Blur’s 1993 album Modern Life Is Rubbish, and a first day at school in 1979 (“Hollow Ponds”). Musically a couple of the later songs (“Photographs” and “The History of a Cheating Heart”) are not terribly interesting but Albarn’s lyrics are always captivating.
Everyday Robots is, in many ways, Damon Albarn’s statement to a world full of people constantly staring at their Twitter feeds and thumbing through their iPods, so focused on instagraming the moment that they forget to actually live in the moment. It is often downbeat and moody, but not in a way that turns you off; you always want to hear what is coming next. This album is a more-than-worthy addition to Albarn’s increasingly versatile musical resume, and longtime fans of any of his projects will be satisfied that his first true solo effort was worth the wait. Here’s hoping we aren’t left waiting quite so long for new Blur and Gorillaz material.